Layla Thorne, 17, and her parents, Charlie and Denise Thorne, enjoy working together to tend their family’s garden box at Visitation B.V.M. Parish’s “No Greater Love Garden.” “I like the idea of having an extra opportunity to come to church with my family and friends, works toward a common purpose, and help out other people,” said Charlie Thorne. (Gia Myers)

“It was a grassy field in March,” said Jim Ermer, parishioner at Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Norristown, of a field behind the church building, now a verdant organic garden.

Parishioners dubbed the new plot the “No Greater Love Garden,” and they volunteer to plant and maintain one or more of the 82 raised garden beds in which grow varieties of tomatoes, beans, squash, peppers and other vegetables, along with flowers that attract beneficial insects.

“We keep it as organic as we can,” Ermer said of the garden.


All food produced by the garden will be donated to the Patrician Society, a Norristown-area nonprofit helping people and families in need. The parish has held food drives in support of the Patrician Society since the organization’s founding in 1981.

“I like the idea of having an extra opportunity to come to church with family and friends, work toward a common purpose, and help out other people,” said Visitation parishioner Charlie Thorn, who along with his wife Denise and daughter Layla, 17, manage one of the garden beds.

“It teaches your kids to be grateful for what you have,” said Denise Thorn. “Hunger is a big issue.”

“I think people are constantly looking for things to do to live out the faith, not just give money, but really grow in the faith,” said Charlie Thorn.

Visitation’s pastor, Father Robert M. Gross — better known to parishioners as “Father Bob” — said he was inspired when visiting the Matthew XXV Garden at St. Cornelius Parish in Chadds Ford last winter, along with his parish manager, Mary Pat Reuther.

Soon after, Father Gross visited the Patrician Society for one of many regular deliveries of canned food donations from his parish.

“Father Bob came on a Monday for the usual food drop off, and had the idea for the garden,” said Patrician Society Executive Director LeeAnn Rooney. “It’s a wonderful thing for lower income families to get fresh produce.”

Named the “No Greater Love Garden” by parishioners at Visitation B.V.M. Parish in Norristown, the garden consists of 82 garden boxes, all weeded and tended regularly by parishioners. The fresh vegetables to be harvested later this summer will be donated to Patrician Society, a nonprofit organization providing an emergency food cupboard to Montgomery County families in need of food assistance. (Gia Myers)

The additional help comes at a time when Patrician Society is seeing an increase in families needing their help, according to Rooney.

“We used to see 80 families a week, and now we see over 200 families a week,” she said. “It used to be that Thanksgiving was our big day, and now we’re seeing that volume of families every week.”

Though Father Gross admits he had no previous experience with gardening, a 12-person parish garden committee was formed “that was really excited, and they ran it with,” he said.

Prior to Palm Sunday, April 10, ground was broken on the garden by parishioner John Baldassari, owner of Baldassari Landscaping in Montgomery County, using a tractor and tiller.  Then students from the parish school removed rocks and roots from the soil.

Raised garden beds were constructed by Boy Scout Troop #369 and Cub Pack Troop #369.

Parishioner Pete Roman, a contractor, started composting for the garden.

Kindergarten students at the parish school planted tomato seeds in the school’s previously unused greenhouse, producing 80 seedlings for the the parish garden.

An irrigation system was added by Steve Campanella, parishioner and owner of C. Sharkey Enterprises Inc., a Delaware Valley company specializing in lawn irrigation systems.

Around 70 parishioners showed up on planting day and they return weekly to weed and care for their garden beds.

“Whenever I look out the rectory window, I see someone in the garden,” said Father Gross. “I see everyone from toddlers to seniors.”

Parishioners Pete Roman (left) and Jim Ermer display the garden shed, housing the many tools used by parishioners to care for the parish garden. (Gia Myers)

The pastor said that a 14-foot crucifix will soon be erected in the center of the garden and benches added to create a reflection area where parishioners can meet and pray together.

The parish rectory’s next-door neighbors, a nondenominational Christian husband and wife, have also helped with the garden. The wife, an artist, is creating plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross to be posted around the inside perimeter of the garden.

“There will definitely be a spiritual aspect” to the garden, said Father Gross.

“This is Gospel values in action,” said Joe Maccolini, former executive director at Patrician Society, who still helps the organization in his retirement. “It’s unique to have a food-to-table concept in the food cupboard industry,” which largely receives packaged food donations.

Plans are already underway for next summer’s garden. Father Gross is looking to engage all grade levels at the parish school in a seed planting competition next spring, capped by a pizza party awarded to the class producing the most plants.

“We have a lot of gardeners in the parish,” said Ermer. “I see people helping people. We’re building bridges to various generations.”

Visitation B.V.M.’s pastor, Father Bob Gross (third from left) admires the parish garden along with Patrician Society Executive Director LeeAnn Rooney (second from left), Parish Manager Mary Pat Reuther (third from right), along with some of the many parishioners who volunteer time to care for the “No Greater Love Garden.” Also pictured is Father Gross’ dog, Yogi. (Photo by Gia Myers)